Iran: Independent civil society organisations facing obliteration

Amnesty International and NGO Arseh Sevom have called on the Iranian Parliament to scrap a draft law which would effectively deregister all non-governmental organisations (NGOs) currently operating in Iran.

The Bill requires all NGOs wishing to continue or commence work to register via a new supervisory structure. This structure will allow bodies affiliated to the Intelligence Ministry and the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary force controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, to make key decisions on the operation of all NGOs.

Amnesty International and Arseh Sevom said that the Bill on the Establishment and Supervision of NGOs was a setback which would be yet one more nail in the coffin of the right to freedom of association in Iran.

A wide range of civil society organisations in Iran – ranging from environmental and Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights’s organisations, charities and organisations for the disabled, to employers’ and professional associations – are opposed to the Bill and have been actively calling on parliamentarians not to pass it in its current form.

The Bill’s general aspects have been passed following two readings in the Islamic Consultative Assembly (ICA), Iran’s parliament, which took place less than six months apart, in contravention of the ICA's own procedures.  Consideration of the detail is scheduled to resume now that the Iranian New Year Holiday has ended.

The Bill was analysed in detail in a November 2010 report entitled Legalising the Murder of Civil Society by Arseh Sevom, which found that the power to issue and revoke permits for all civil society organisations would be transferred to a new and unaccountable body – the Supreme Committee Supervising NGO Activities.   

This body, presided over by the Ministry of the Interior, will include representatives from the Judiciary, the Intelligence Ministry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Organisation of Charity and Devotion, and Mosque Affairs and the Basij, with only one member representing NGOs.  The Supreme Committee will also have ultimate authority over the boards of directors of NGOs, control the distribution of resources to them, grant permission for demonstrations, and prohibit public scrutiny and criticism of the government and other state authorities.  Any NGOs wishing to join international organisations or undertake any involvement in international activities will be required to obtain prior authorisation from this Committee.

Amnesty International and Arseh Sevom said that the Bill would sound the death knell for civil society in Iran, which has been under considerable pressure from the authorities since the election of President Ahmadinejad in 2005.  Civil society activists have faced harassment, threats and arrest in connection with their work, and their organisations have been closed down, often without a court order.  Some have been sentenced to prison terms or flogging, and many have taken the reluctant decision to flee the country, fearing for their safety.

The two organisations said that it was deeply regrettable that at the same time that the international community had recognised the importance of freedom of association by creating a Special Rapporteur on freedom of association at the recent 16th session of the Human Rights Council, the Iranian authorities were doing their utmost to limit the exercise of this basic right.

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